To Make Suffering Crumble
April 24, 2024

There are some passages in the Canon that describe the other teachings that were being taught during the time of the Buddha. A lot of them said, basically, “This is the way the world is—accept it.”

Some would say that your actions have no meaning, or you don’t even have actions—actions are unreal—or that there are actions, but you don’t have any choices in what you do. Then they would say, “Accept that.”

Sometimes you even hear of the Buddhist teachings presented in that way, starting with the three characteristics—that things are inconstant, stressful, not-self, and you can’t do anything about that, so accept it.

But the Buddha never taught that way. He started out, not with the three characteristics, but with the four noble truths, basically saying, “Here is the problem: the fact that you’re suffering. We can figure out the cause and we can attack the cause so that there’s no more suffering. And there’s a way to do that.”

It’s a very different approach. It’s like a doctor’s approach. If you come to see a doctor, complaining that you’ve got a pain in your hip or in your stomach, he doesn’t say, “Well, your body is inconstant, stressful, not-self—accept the pain.” That wouldn’t be a very helpful doctor. You’d want a doctor who could analyze the problem, “See, this is the cause, and we can attack the cause, which means that you can get well.” That’s the Buddha’s approach.

As he analyzed the problem of suffering, he came down basically to something that’s not immediately intuitive. First he gave examples: There’s the suffering of aging, illness, and death; there’s the suffering of pain, distress, despair. Those things we’re familiar with. But then he said what they all have in common is the act of clinging to five aggregates. This may sound abstract and far away, and not all that helpful, but actually the Buddha’s talking about things you’re doing all the time. And he divides things into five aggregates to make them more manageable. It’s like taking a big problem and dividing it up into little tiny problems, each of which you can manage. The smaller the pieces, the easier they are to handle.

This applies both to physical pain and to mental pain. The duty there, the Buddha says, is to comprehend it, and that basically means dividing it up into these five categories. Comprehending it that way, you make it a lot lighter.

There’s a reference many times in the texts to what the Buddha calls the mass of ignorance. When we’re ignorant of what’s going on, suffering is a big mass as well—a huge mountain. But when we can see that the mountain is made out of little pieces of rock, and you can take it apart piece by piece by piece, then it’s not so overwhelming.

When you have physical pain, first you want to be able to be with the pain and not feel that you have to run away from it or push it away, and that requires that you develop some good concentration. And where do you get the concentration? From the same five aggregates: You’ve got the breath, which is body or form, and you’re trying to breathe in a way that gives rise to a feeling of pleasure. You use certain perceptions of the breath. Feeling the body and the breath running along the nerves, the blood vessels, the muscles of the body, you talk to yourself about the breath to get it more comfortable, and then you maintain that intention to stay with the breath: All of that counts as fabrication. Then there’s awareness or consciousness of these things.

If you find that you have trouble settling down, you might ask yourself, “Which of those five things is the problem? Is the problem with the breath? Is it with the feelings in the body around the breath? How about my perceptions? Can I change my mental image of the breath? How about the way I’m talking to myself?”

When you divide things up into little pieces like this, it’s a lot easier to figure out the problem. It’s like a checklist so that the mass of mind that doesn’t want to settle down can be broken up into manageable bits. And in getting the mind concentrated like this and understanding it in terms of these aggregates you’re giving yourself the categories you need to understand, say, physical pain. Physical pain, of course, would be a feeling. Then the form of the body is there, but it’s something separate. In fact, you’ve got to see it as separate.

We sometimes hear that the Buddha said that wisdom is seeing things in terms of their oneness. But he never said that. Wisdom sees things as separate—how they’re interacting, but they are separate things. The form of the body is one thing. The feeling of pain is something else. And then there are your perceptions, such as the perception that the pain is right there—and it is a pain, very definitely a pain. The strange thing is that the mind has a tendency to want to maintain the pain out of a sense that if you keep it steady and still, then it’s not going to grow on you or do erratic and unpredictable things. Of course, clamping down on the pain that way just makes it worse.

Then there’s a question of how you’re talking to yourself about it. Sometimes that all gets glommed together in the mass of ignorance around the pain. But if you take it apart, you can actually see that the form of the body is one thing, the breath going through the spot where the pain is, is not the same thing as the pain. The warmth of the body there, the solidity: They’re not the same thing as the pain. The pain is something else. And the pain moves around a lot. Once you give it a little freedom to move around, you’ll see that it’s very erratic. It comes and goes—and each time it comes, don’t think of it coming at you. As soon as it appears, think of it going away. That changes your perception.

The perception is sometimes like a little lid that we try to put on the pain to make clear exactly where the pain is and how we can keep it in place. But sometimes the lid is the problem. So question your perceptions around the pain. When you do this, you find that you can sit with the pain. Instead of wanting it to go away, you just get more and more interested in it. You really do want to comprehend it.

The same principle applies with mental pain. Sometimes it’s associated with the way you breathe, so ask yourself, “Can you breathe in a different way?” When you breathe in, where does the breath come from? Can you think of it coming someplace else? Then what are the feelings you have around that mental pain? What are the perceptions? How are you talking to yourself about it?

Say there’s something you’re fearful or anxious about: Exactly how realistic is that fear? Some fears really are realistic, but some of them are not.

And what about those voices in the mind that say, “You’ve got to be afraid of this”? Where do they come from? And the voices that say, “It’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and you won’t be able to handle it”: Where do they come from? What do they know? There have been times in the past when problems have gotten bigger, but do they actually get bigger on their own or did you aggravate them?

Again, we’ve been dealing with our mental pains, physical pains through that mass of ignorance. So try to cut things up into little bits and this way you find, at the very least, that you can endure these things a lot more easily because they’re not so huge.

One of the worst things you can do is think about how long the pain has lasted up to now, and how much longer it may be going into the future—that’s just weighing down the mind right here in the present moment. Tell yourself, “I’m going to deal just with the event of the pain right here.” Or, just with the fact that the mind is talking to itself right here, right now. Any reference to the past, any reference to the future, you just cut it away. Say, “It’s not relevant right here.”

So this is the basic principle: Try to break things down into manageable bits, and try to see the usefulness of the Buddha’s analysis—form, feelings, perceptions, thought constructs or fabrications, consciousness—particularly when you can see the physical pain or the mental pain as a process like this, and that helps give you some distance from it.

For instance, when you’re driving yourself crazy talking about certain things in your mind, focus less on the content of what the mind is saying, and more on the process of how the mind talks to itself, and how it uses perceptions to stab itself, and how it doesn’t really have to—or, how it focuses on certain feelings in the body that make the mental pain more and more unbearable. Are there other parts of the body that are not affected by that? How about your bones? What are your bones doing right now? What do they have to say? They don’t have much to say? Good. Stay with them. They’re part of your awareness, so hang out with your bones for a while.

The trick here is to learn how to endure things by making little of them—breaking them down into manageable bits. This is one area where the word “aggregate” actually seems to be helpful. Instead of being one big solid mass of rock, you’ve just got piles of gravel—and you take the gravel, one piece at a time, one piece at a time—and you can handle it, it doesn’t weigh you down.

So make things light, make things small, make things separate, and that big mass of suffering will crumble into little bits.